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Walking the ‘Boulevard’ With a Cinephile

TIMES FILM CRITIC

“I sure turned into an interesting driveway,” scuffling screenwriter Joe Gillis says of the big house out on Sunset Boulevard that fate and a flat tire led him to, a feeling composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and company must have shared when they decided to turn Billy Wilder’s 1950 motion picture about Gillis’ destiny into an elaborate stage musical.

For “Sunset Boulevard” the movie is as close to a classic as modern American movies get. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards (though it won only three), it is rich with character and atmosphere and, as perhaps the best film Hollywood ever made about itself, was included among the first 25 films the Library of Congress granted official landmark status to in 1989.

But just as that looming mansion proves too much for Joe, the original movie is finally too much for the stage version, which in the end is suffocated by the shadow of its celebrated predecessor. Though the musical is remarkably faithful to the film on the surface and in peripheral details, it has not managed to capture the essence that has kept the picture alive for so long.

In all fairness, of all the great American films “Sunset Boulevard” is among the most difficult to recapture. A show business story that had real Hollywood people playing variants of themselves, its aura of verisimilitude inevitably defeats duplication.

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Gloria Swanson, who played star Norma Desmond, really was a silent movie queen stymied by sound, and if Erich von Stroheim, who played butler Max von Mayerling, hadn’t been reduced to taking a job in service, he was Swanson’s former director, and it is a clip from their ill-fated collaboration, “Queen Kelly,” that Norma and Joe Gillis end up watching together.

As if attempting to make up for the lack of real-life parallels, “Sunset Boulevard,” the musical, displays an almost religious fealty toward the movie. Not only are the smallest details transferred intact to the stage, things like the mansion’s street number on Sunset Boulevard, Gillis’ newspaper origins in Dayton, Ohio, and Norma’s elaborate Isotta Fraschini automobile, but the play is even cast with an eye toward duplicating the film.

And while it might be expected that a major player like Max von Mayerling would be cast in the person of George Hearn to look like Von Stroheim, his opposite number on the screen, even the minor character of Paramount producer Sheldrake (Sal Mistretta) resembles the journeyman actor Fred Clark who played him in the film.

That respect is most noticeable in the dialogue, huge chunks of which have been transplanted from the movie to the play. Not only the famous lines, like Norma’s “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small” have made it over intact, but minor ones like Gillis’ “Can you see Ty Power as a shortstop?” completed the journey as well. Other original lines, like an unctuous salesman’s “The lady’s paying,” have been turned into song titles and even lyrics.

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Where this duplication works best is in the show’s physical production, which is frankly spectacular. Production designer John Napier has met and surpassed every challenge the film presented, from its celebrated body-in-the-pool opening to its “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille” ending. And his rococo re-creation of that overdone Sunset Boulevard mansion makes it possible for us to fully experience Norma’s living room in a way that the original could only hint at.

Inevitably, some minor and understandably tinkering has been done with the plot. An opening number, the lively if anachronistic “Let’s Have Lunch,” has been created at the Paramount studio gates as a way to quickly present several plot points, from the attempted repossession of Gillis’ car to the callousness of his agent. And the subplot of Betty Schaefer’s determination to get Gillis to polish up some old material, which only kicks in in the film’s second half, runs through the entire course of the play.

Considerably harder to accept is what “Sunset Boulevard” the play has done to the character of Gillis and Norma and the nature of their relationship. In a word, everything has been softened, making their romance easier for an audience to take but losing much of the chilling spider-and-the-fly atmosphere that made the film so breathtaking.

Alan Campbell plays Gillis as younger and callower than William Holden did, and he lacks the biting, been-around edge to his voice that actor had. As for Norma Desmond, it says nothing against Glenn Close’s strong performance that she doesn’t get as much out of the role as Gloria Swanson did. No one could.

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Swanson’s work was and remains astonishing, walking the line between pathos and hysteria, fascination and repulsion, in a way that is mesmerizing. That difference underlines the ways in which this new “Sunset Boulevard” is like a colorized version of a vintage film, arguably entertaining and valuable in certain situations, but, not surprisingly, in no way a substitute for the original.


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